He said he felt “really great.” He said he was “pain free.” He said he was in a “really good position to progress.” He said so a week ago.
On Thursday, Cole Hamels said something different.
The lefthander, who is dealing with tendinitis in his pitching shoulder, informed reporters in Clearwater that his body was telling him to “take a step back and start over.” How do you take a step back from feeling really great and pain free? That is some curious footwork.
“I felt good when I threw my last bullpen, everything was great,” Hamels said about last Saturday’s session. “But later that day and the next day, my arm felt fatigued. After 35 pitches, my body felt like I had thrown 1,000.”
That is a powerful and troubling statement. Here’s what you prefer not to hear from your 30-year-old front-of-rotation pitcher: That throwing a handful of pitches in early March makes him feel like his arm might fall off. That is generally bad news for a team that's counting on the same pitcher to help the Phils recover from last season's dreadful campaign.
Hamels said the best way to describe his condition is “dead arm or frozen arm.” You’re forgiven if the colloquialisms don’t anesthetize your concerns. You’re also forgiven if you don’t quite understand why Hamels said there are no plans for a cortisone injection or even an MRI.
How is that possible? How is it that the Phillies' front office isn’t insisting on extensive tests? Hamels is on a six-year, $144 million contract. For that kind of money, Ruben Amaro Jr. should load him into a car and take him to the hospital every time Hamels gets the sniffles. You can’t be too careful.
A week ago, Hamels trumpeted his progression. Now we’re left to talk about this unexpected regression. Or maybe it’s not so unexpected. This is how the last few spring trainings have gone for the Phillies. If spring is about hope for most teams, it has recently been something much darker for the Phils.
A year ago, Roy Halladay showed up in Clearwater and said he felt better than he had in a while. He imploded early in the season, had surgery, made a brief return, was eventually shut down again, and then retired. You might recall he had arm fatigue.
Last spring, Ryan Howard reported to camp and declared he felt fine. He had been dealing with Achilles and knee issues but said he was healthy. Then he played 80 games last season. He played 71 the year before. If you’re wondering, he came to spring training this year and said he’s ship-shape.
In February 2011, Chase Utley said he had some knee pain that “comes and goes.” He was listed as day-to-day, which was technically true. Days came and days went and Utley missed the first 46 games of that season. He played 103 games in 2011.
Utley also reported knee pain during spring training in 2012. Again, it was explained as a wait-and-see thing. Utley chose therapy over surgery. He missed the first 77 outings that season and appeared in just 83 games.
The observant have no doubt recognized a disquieting pattern. Player shows up for spring training. Player is dealing with some physical issue. Player says there’s nothing to worry about. Player suffers a setback. Nothing to worry about becomes something. And now here we are once more, mired in injury limbo with a younger player (relatively speaking) the Phils can ill-afford to lose.
“I think, ultimately, when people think shoulder and not being able to throw a baseball, they think injuries, tears, the pain indication,” Hamels said. “It’s not that. It’s really tired and it was kind of more difficult to go through the throwing motion, let alone try to throw something very competitive.
“The shoulder really doesn’t want to throw the ball the way I want to against hitters. My muscles just weren’t responding. And you have to listen to the way your body responds.”
You have to wonder how this continues to happen and who’s ultimately responsible. Because the way it keeps playing out, it feels like the Phils' medical evaluation protocol mirrors what used to occur in pick-up games in your neighbor’s backyard. Someone would hurt something, and then someone else would ask if he’s OK, and then the first someone would say yes. We’re at the point now where it wouldn’t be surprising if Hamels said he would try to walk it off or rub some dirt on it.